Joseph Boyden’s “Wenjack”: the story of the raw brutality of a young boy’s situation and the strength of his heritage

Author Joseph Boyden’s novella “Wenjack” is short, but vast in its significance. Boyden himself has referred to it as a “little book with a big heart”. The story begins with Chanie Wenjack’s attempted journey home after escaping a North Ontario residential school; Manitous, the spirits of the forest, follow him through his attempt, joking and taunting with him but finally offering him comfort as he realizes his physical life is fading.

In an interview with CBC Radio’s Candy Palmater, Boyden addresses the importance of an artist’s work and what it can potentially mean to our community at large.

“As artists, we’re able to say, ‘Let’s all focus on this,’” said Boyden. “There’s a lot of resilience going on and it’s something that I think more Canadians are going to hear more and more about.”

Wenjack died at age 12 in 1966 after running away from a residential school, believing his home to be mere hours away. Unfortunately, the school had taken him over 400 miles from his home, in order to strip his heritage away and replace it with English culture and strict Catholic religion. The book continues to make strides in its telling of Wenjack’s story, pushing for the history of residential schools, the attempts to destroy First Nations cultures and forced assimilation through violence and hate to be more widely viewed and discussed as a part of Canada’s history.

Around the same time as Boyden’s novella was released, Gord Downie released his graphic novel entitled “Secret Path”. Together, Boyden and Downie are telling Wenjack’s story in order to encourage not only the telling of First Nations’ history, but also of present day issues.

Boyden’s expression of Wenjack’s story is brutal in its raw telling of the young boy’s journey, but it also ends with the beauty of Wenjack becoming a part of the Maintous – although the event unfair and unjust, Boyden celebrates the beauty of Wenjack’s Ojibwe culture resurrecting him in spirit.

“His voice really does come to me in this beautiful, quiet way,” Boyden explained to Palmater. “I want the reader to be Chanie.”

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